By Doug Sweet
Learning is changing. Where we learn, how we learn, our sources of information are all changing rapidly thanks to the mind-boggling amount of information available to us through a keyboard, a computer screen and a mouse.
Where bleary-eyed students used to comb through library stacks for sources they could use in essays and projects, today they can find the same information and more from their kitchen table. Where patient and helpful library staff used to point students and researchers to the appropriate card catalogues or sections of stacks, today they are more likely to point the way to an online journals or particularly useful research website.
Very few places in the university have been affected by the advent of the Internet more than the Library. And yet, libraries remain essential places, where students can find quiet space to study, groups can gather to work on projects and, yes, researchers can still find information the old-fashioned way, especially if that information is on the obscure side and not readily available online.
Consider these facts:
- McGill has the largest and most unique research collection in Quebec and one of the most unique collections in North America.
- 45 per cent of that collection has not circulated in the past 25 years.
- It costs $4.26 per book per year to store it on the library shelves.
- It costs 86 cents per book per year to keep a book in accessible, high-density storage.
- McGill has study seating available in libraries for 6 per cent of its students.
- The Association of College and Research Libraries benchmark is 25 per cent of students.
Something’s gotta give.
That’s why McGill’s Library and Archives has embarked upon an ambitious project to imagine the libraries of the future at McGill.
Two architectural firms are currently learning about the McGill situation and soliciting feedback from every element of the community – students, faculty, administrative staff – to chart a course ahead.
“McGill University’s Library system must accelerate its evolution and make an important step forward both physically and virtually in order to meet the evolving teaching, learning and research needs of its community,” according to a document that outlines the scope of the project and its timeline. “Re-thinking the existing Library System will position McGill University as one of the most prominent and accessible research libraries in the world, incorporating the most effective technological advancements to support the unique print and digital collections.”
This is no small undertaking. McGill University Library and Archives comprises a complex network of four downtown campus libraries (Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Schulich Library of Sciences and Engineering, Nahum Gelber Law Library and the Marvin Duchow Music Library) and five sites devoted to rare, special, manuscripts and archives (the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, Rare and Special Collections Library, Archives, Islamic Studies Library and Birks Reading Room). And there is also a library at the Macdonald Campus.
The libraries tend to be severely overcrowded during examination periods and service points for users have evolved in poor locations.
“We are falling behind,” said Colleen Cook, Trenholme Dean of Libraries. “McGill has wonderful collections, and first-rate staff, but we are hampered by an absence of proper, high-density storage space that would allow us to free up room for more study areas in order to better meet our students’ needs.
“We have appreciated very much the financial support students and groups like the Friends of the Library have provided over the years to keep us in the game; but the game is changing and we need to be able to change with it. In fact, we need to lead it.
“We need to be able to envision today the library of tomorrow.”